Wine holds a curious position in American culture. Not long ago, it was treated as the province of snobs, whether gourmands who obsess over "bouquets" or more-tasteful-than-thous who look down their noses at beer. Some politicians still talk about wine that way, hoping to bond with voters who don't have the time -- or the budget -- for such uppity airs. But drinking wine hardly counts as putting on airs anymore. With American wine consumption going up every year, the old characterization is harder to maintain.
Similarly, the idea of a wine bar once seemed rather hoity-toity. What is the point of such a place to a person who doesn't know the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon blanc? Yet wine is an ancient drink, and in a lot of countries it's simply an everyday social beverage, without cultural baggage. The Wine Loft follows the latter path. You won't mistake it for a corner bar, but sociability is clearly at the core of its concept.
Take, for instance, the seating. There are just four traditional tables; the rest of the seating is on couches, easy chairs or leather-upholstered ottomans in relaxed arrangements around low tables that welcome both couples and large groups. Each grouping of seats is individually lit with distinctive table lamps and candles, creating intimate, semi-private little islands. (There's also a small bar, complete with TV tuned to sports.)
When The Wine Loft opened, a limited menu mostly provided a little something to nibble alongside the wine: bread and cheese, olives and other traditional complements. With The Wine Loft's success came an opportunity to expand those choices: The kitchen, led by chef Sam Cerminara, now offers a brief but fairly comprehensive dining menu. In keeping with the establishment's sociable concept, most items are suited for sharing, but also are not too much food for one.
Baked brie en croute -- the cheese wrapped in pastry before baking -- is an easy indulgence, especially with a drizzle of something sweet on top. Cerminara delivers the latter with both vanilla-infused honey and a balsamic reduction, with a sprinkling of finely minced nuts underscoring the implicit comparison with an ice-cream sundae. Unfortunately, the pastry was pale and hardly distinguishable from the (surprisingly large) wedge of cheese itself.
The goat-cheese pizza board suffered from the same lack of distinction. Two smallish pizzas were served, one with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts, the other with prosciutto, basil and tomatoes; both were topped with mozzarella and the eponymous goat cheese. This mixture of creamy, mild Italian cheese and fluffy, tangy French chèvre was the best part of these pizzas. The prosciutto-tomato-basil topping was the more successful of the two pizzas; on the other, the artichoke hearts were hard to detect, and the crust, a little too thick and too soft, could really have used their bright, tart presence.
Interestingly, we found the most successful dishes to be those farthest removed from typical wine accompaniment. Our meal improved considerably with the delivery of filet sliders. Even if the winking sheen of trendiness has worn off these little mini-burgers, the good ones still excel. Cerminara's first, best move was to skip ground beef, which inevitably dries out in such diminutive portions, and instead to use slices of tender filet. The meat got the cover it deserved in delicious, toasted, brioche-like buns; a smear of bleu-cheese butter added tang while sweet onion jam countered with a hint of sugar. Our only quibble was that the fillings were a touch scant for the bun, but the components themselves all worked.
Hawaiian tuna tartare came together nicely as well. "Hawaiian" is often code for pineapples and too-sweet sauces, but in this case Hawaii was chastely represented by crushed macadamias, a brilliant stroke that added crunch and a bit of earthiness to a large bowl of diced, sashimi-grade tuna. The fish was lightly dressed with a soy-sauce blend that flavored it without hiding its meaty, mineral-y quality. The fish was far better than what you typically get at restaurants where sushi is but an aside, and red pepper flakes stood in ably for wasabi in giving each bite a little heat.
Pumpkin ravioli featured a firm yet creamy filling packaged in thin, almost al dente pasta wrappers, so much nicer than the pumpkin-pasta mush that this traditional autumn dish so often stoops to. Simple sage butter, lightly browned to release sweet caramel notes, nutty parmigiano reggiano cheese and a liberal toss of fresh herbs lent this fundamentally simple dish a subtle complexity.
The wine menu is divided into categories such as "red," "white" and "sparkling"; it's well curated, featuring many unusual varietals alongside the more familiar chardonnays and shirazes. And part of the pleasure of The Wine Loft is discussing appropriate pairings with the helpful staff. However, including descriptions of the wines on the list might assist less-experienced wine drinkers, as might wine-pairing suggestions printed on the food menu. Drawing this extra link between the sociability of wine and that of food could truly establish The Wine Loft as a place which rewards diners and drinkers alike.
The Wine Loft
2773 Tunnel Blvd., SouthSide Works, South Side.
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 4 p.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Liquor: Full bar